Death, and endings: let’s talk about them.
Even before we see the gun in Mike’s getaway bag, it seems inevitable: Mr. Ehrmantraut is not much longer for this world. Mike spends the first half of “Say My Name” tidying up his affairs and divesting himself of any ties to Walter White, and doing it in his usual, scrupulous fashion; but it’s not enough. One last snag turns out to be enough to send him on the run, and in need of assistance from a man he despises. At the very least, Mike gets what’s probably the closest thing Breaking Bad has to a dignified death: after getting in one last “shut the fuck up” at Walter’s expense, Mike takes in the sun-dappled lake for a few more moments, and then keels over. Look at it this way, Mike: at least you still have an entire face.
With Mike gone and one episode left in the half-season, we’re reminded that, as a high-stakes crime drama with only a few important players, Breaking Bad can be broken down into a set of binary story and character possibilities: Walter White lives or dies. Jesse gets out and away from Walt’s influence or loses himself for good. Skyler saves her family or perishes trying. Hank discovers Walt in time or gives up just short of the finish line. Walt Jr. has scrambled eggs or waffles. Etc. With Mike, it always felt like he only had one ending: Walt was going to kill him. No other death on Breaking Bad has felt so preordained, save for Gus, whose Apparat-assisted death march nonetheless managed to be spine-tingling in spite of its predictability.
For a show like Breaking Bad to work in the face of these binaries, it would seem it has a choice of its own: either it can exploit its wonderful powers of misdirection and innuendo to encourage us to accept the possibility of outré third options. or it can simply double down on its reserves of stellar acting, writing, and filmmaking in order to deliver an endgame more focused on iconic moments and images than in shocking us with the unexpected. For certain, this second path is the one taken by “Say My Name,” which crushes forward with the weight of a clear, cruel fate rather than a spontaneous twist of the knife.
Yet for those who yearn for the plot ingenuity and nimbleness best exploited in seasons 3 and 4, there is a little hope, of sorts, in the resolutions of two other, tangentially similar prestige crime dramas: The Shield and The Sopranos. (No spoilers, don’t worry.) In the former, Shawn Ryan contrived a last scene that stayed true to his characters and the show’s moral universe while shunning much more obvious (and surface-level satisfying) conclusions. In the latter, David Chase paradoxically acknowledged how clear Tony Soprano’s potential outcomes were with a single, gutsy edit that let Chase have his cake, eat it, and piss off a significant chunk of his viewership in the process. (For Chase, this counted as everybody winning.) The point to these mentions: the medium affords “third ways” even when it seems they do not or cannot exist.
Besides Mike’s passing, a lot happens in “Say My Name,” and even more is set in motion; much moreso than last week’s installment. Walt’s hubris has grown to comically insane levels; yet for his hardman stance in the cold open, he still shakes like a child when it comes to dealing death with his own hand. Jesse’s “out,” Todd is in. (Todd insists on not getting paid to cook until he gets it right; such a nice boy! Oh, wait.) Mike’s nine guys still need to be dealt with; possibly Lydia, too; is Walt really going to wipe them out?
It seems likely. After all, what do we know about Walt’s future? We know he makes it to 52, but we also know he winds up in exile, gearing up for a conflict of even greater proportion than usual. It only fits that the body count left in his wake will skyrocket. The question that remains is just how pitch-black the show is going to get, and who will be caught in the blood tide. Regardless of whether Gilligan opts for mind-bending plot twists or merely spectacular execution, the wait between half-seasons while viewers weigh the likelihood of the show’s various outcomes is going to be a killer.